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Wednesday, 6 December 2006
Page: 153

Mr GRIFFIN (10:01 AM) —I am the member for Bruce.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. IR Causley)—The member for Bruce, sorry.

Mr GRIFFIN —Mr Deputy Speaker, that I should stand here today and see you make a mistake! I guess it has been a busy week and a lot of things have happened that have had implications for the future of the nation, but I have to say that that is the one that has shocked me probably most of all!

I stand here today to make it clear that Labor supports the Electoral and Referendum Legislation Amendment Bill 2006. The bill contains measures arising from the government’s response to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters report on the inquiry into the conduct of the 2004 federal election and matters related thereto. I was a member of that committee and, on the basis of the deliberations of that committee, am happy to support this bill.

This is the second tranche of changes that have been brought forward by the government with respect to the recommendations of that report. I am happy to support these particular amendments, but it would be remiss of me not to comment—and I will comment to a greater degree later—on the earlier legislation which related to that report and introduced some very regressive measures to alter the electoral system. Those measures were clearly introduced by the government to try and seek partisan political advantage. But I will talk more about that a little later on.

This bill contains amendments for the expansion of postal vote provisions for ADF and AFP personnel, revised arrangements for the delivery of postal voting material, an increase in the number of AEC officers that are eligible to receive postal vote envelopes, the introduction of trials for electronically assisted voting for the visually impaired, and remote electronic voting for ADF personnel deployed overseas. Additionally the bill proposes to repeal defamation provisions that carry criminal actions and penalties for defamation against electoral candidates. I would now like to talk about these measures in more detail.

The committee’s report recommended that the Commonwealth Electoral Act be amended to specifically permit ADF and AFP personnel serving overseas to become general postal voters. These people will automatically be sent ballot papers for each election without first having to lodge a postal vote application, giving them more time to return their postal vote.

The act currently provides that an application shall be regarded as not having been made if it reaches the relevant AEC officer after 6 pm on the day before polling day, a Friday. Item 6 repeals subsection 184(5) and substitutes a new subsection to provide that the deadline by which postal vote applications must be received in order to be processed is 6 pm on the Thursday—that is, two days before polling day. This amendment is intended to enhance the prospect of postal voters receiving postal voting material in time for completion on or before polling day.

The proposal also inserts a new subsection 184(6) to provide that, for postal voting applications received after this new deadline, the AEC is required to make reasonable efforts to contact those applicants to advise them that their applications have not met the deadline and of the need for them to vote by other means. This item gives effect to the government’s response to part of recommendation 9 of the JSCEM’s report.

The Electoral Act currently provides that an elector who casts a postal vote shall post or deliver the completed postal voting envelope on which the postal vote certificate is printed to the appropriate DRO. Where it is unlikely that the completed postal voting envelope would reach the appropriate DRO within 13 days after polling day, the Electoral Act currently allows for the envelope to be returned to other AEC officers. These other officers are any DRO and ARO outside Australia, a pre-poll voting officer or a polling place presiding officer.

To provide postal voters with greater flexibility and options for returning their postal voting material in time to be included in the scrutiny, this bill expands the range of AEC officers who can receive completed postal voting envelopes. Whilst engaging in their normal work, these officers will be able to receive postal voting envelopes where it is unlikely that the appropriate DRO will receive them within 13 days after polling day. The expanded range includes electoral visitors at hospitals and prisons, mobile polling team leaders and certain office holders and ongoing employees of the AEC’s capital city offices. This item gives effect to recommendation 9 of the committee’s report.

This bill will insert into the Electoral Act trials of electronic voting methods and consists of two divisions. Division 1 provides for a trial of electronically assisted voting for sight impaired people and division 2 provides for a trial of remote electronic voting for defence personnel serving outside Australia. The trial will be rolled out on Defence’s secure network and involves approximately 1,500 people. The government have indicated they may consider extending the trial, as recommended by the committee, but have made no commitments.

The proposed method will produce a printed record of the vote a person has cast. Once a person has cast an electronically assisted vote, the vote record will be placed in an envelope upon which a completed declaration has been made. While the vote record will not be capable of identifying the elector, consistent with the process adopted for pre-poll voting, information on the outside of the envelope will enable preliminary scrutiny to take place. To ensure the secrecy of the vote is maintained, the vote record produced at the pre-poll voting office will not be required to be an exact replication of the ballot paper; however, the vote record must be capable of producing a document, whether it be a replication of the ballot paper or otherwise, that accurately reflects the voter’s intention for scrutiny purposes.

I am a big supporter of this measure. Any measure that makes it easier for our brave fighting men and women to exercise their civic duty, while in operations, is to be duly welcomed. Depending on the results, this trial could lead to further reforms, and it is another example of new technologies helping to improve our system of democracy.

A continuing challenge for future Australian governments in this area will be how we make new technologies work for the administration of our democracy. Social, cultural and technological forces will always impact on how we administer and perceive our democracy. However, the impact of new technologies in this area has often been underanalysed, yet in the past they have had a great impact and will continue to do so in the future. One only has to look at the impact the printing press has had on the development of democracy.

It is new communication technologies that are having an impact, with the most noticeable being the internet. I welcome any technology that allows for greater participation and partnership of Australians in our great democratic project. While these reforms only implement a trial of electronic voting, the possibilities this holds for a number of areas are large. It is for these reasons that I look forward to the results of this trial and the possible reforms that may follow.

It is also proposed that alternative documentary evidence may be supplied by people enrolling from overseas under sections 94A and 95 of the Electoral Act. In order to assist people enrolling from overseas to meet the first tier requirement, it is proposed to provide these people with the option of supplying either their Australian passport number or their driver’s licence number as documentary evidence of their name.

There is also a provision that allows the AEC to establish a pre-poll voting office when, due to exceptional circumstances, it would not be possible to gazette the declaration prior to commencement of the operation of the pre-poll voting office. This provision will operate as an exception to the general requirement to gazette pre-poll voting offices. This will allow pre-poll voting offices to be established in circumstances where the AEC is required to quickly ensure that electors are able to cast votes. The AEC will still be required to publish a copy of the declaration in the gazette as soon as practical after the declaration has been made.

Section 350 of the Commonwealth Electoral Act makes it an offence for a person to make or publish any false and defamatory statement in relation to the personal character or conduct of a candidate. This bill will repeal this section. Following repeal of the section, cases of defamation will be dealt with in accordance with the civil law of defamation existing in the relevant state or territory jurisdiction. This will bring candidate defamation actions in line with existing laws and the move to uniform national defamation laws. This item gives effect to recommendation 46 of the committee report.

The vast majority of the measures in this bill are positive reforms that arise from that committee’s report. It is interesting to contrast, as I mentioned earlier, this legislation with earlier legislation that the government has moved as a response to that committee’s report. This legislation, although not dramatic, has some important basic reforms which are designed to enhance the operation of our system to provide people with a greater opportunity to be able to cast a vote. With electronic assistance voting, allowing Defence Force personnel to register as general postal voters, and providing different provisions in terms of who can receive postal votes after they have been filled in, this legislation will improve the operation of the democracy that we are all a part of. It will provide people with a greater capacity to enhance their involvement.

That is fantastic, but it is in direct contrast to the last bill in this area that this government moved in response to the committee’s recommendation. That bill produced a number of changes which in fact had exactly the opposite effect to the effect this legislation would have with respect to the operation of our democracy. At that time we had a situation where we had provisions around the earlier closure of the electoral roll. There is absolutely no doubt that closing the electoral roll early would produce an administrative nightmare, with people being incorrectly enrolled, and would lead to a large number of people excluded from being able to cast a valid vote—and that would actually impinge on the operation of our democracy. There is absolutely no doubt that, if the changes that were made had been implemented for the last election, up to 80,000 Australians might have been unable to enrol to vote and up to 280,000 people in total could have been affected by having a substantial fault in their enrolment. There is absolutely no doubt that the changes that were made then—in contrast to the changes that are being made now—would create real problems for the operation of our democracy.

On that issue—and this is germane to this particular legislation because it is about the operation of the electoral system through the Electoral Act—what we saw at that time was a situation where the AEC changed their position on these sorts of changes and changed the position that previous electoral commissioners had had over the last decade. When these sorts of proposals were put forward by this government on earlier occasions, the AEC rejected them. The AEC said that this was not a good idea for our democracy. The AEC said this would have exactly the impacts that the Labor Party and many independent experts had said it would have. The AEC criticised it and they did not recommend that it go forward. This particular Electoral Commissioner has changed that and has said that he can implement it and he believes it will be fine.

But what have we found since then about the operation of our electoral system? To me, one of the key indicators between elections is the maintenance of the electoral roll. What have we seen? Figures in the AEC annual report showed that, for the first time in nearly 10 years, the total enrolment under the Australian electoral system in fact went down. It has been years and years since that has occurred. When the commissioner was questioned about this at Senate estimates, he admitted that the AEC were seriously concerned about what that meant. They were seriously concerned about the maintenance of our electoral roll, which underpins the operation of our democratic system. It is the very basis by which we elect our governments, the very basis by which we have a system which we can have confidence in.

But the commissioner, in his wisdom—and I use the word loosely—came forward and changed his position and the position of the commission around the operation of these changes as proposed by the government, when at least three previous commissioners had said that they did not agree with it. He said, ‘If the government enacts it, we can implement it’—yet we have seen concrete evidence that there are real problems with the maintenance of the electoral roll under the current system. I for one have grave concerns about the quality of our electoral roll under these circumstances. I for one am genuinely concerned about how well the AEC will be able to administer the electoral roll, given the fact that there is clear evidence that their current systems appear to be having real problems.

I know there has been some increase since that time due to the fact that there have been some state elections, but nonetheless—even allowing for that particular aspect of the electoral cycle leading to a growth in enrolments—the fact of the matter is that there is clearly an issue there. When we already have an electoral roll where there are problems and we then close the roll early, the probability is that even greater problems will result.

The Electoral Commissioner has also said that he thinks that, with respect to issues like the administration of the roll, plenty of work could be done through advertising campaigns and that those advertising campaigns can be successful. Again, I point to the fact that it is pretty clear that what the AEC have been doing in recent years has not been working very effectively, because it is clear from their own figures that the roll is becoming a problem. Many experts, in considering the earlier changes made by the government, raised concerns about these issues. I will quote several of those experts. In response to the JSCEM inquiry into the 2004 election, Antony Green, the electoral commentator and expert from the ABC, said:

If suddenly the election is called two or three months early, people will not have regularised their enrolment. You will cut young people off, as the numbers show ...

Professor Brian Costar also made a number of points with respect to that issue. On the question of advertising campaigns and their likely success during the days in the lead-up to an election after an election has been called he said:

Let us remember that, at that period, lots of other noise is going to crowd out an election advertising campaign. Who is interested?

There is absolutely no doubt about the impact of the changes, so it is good that with this legislation we will see electronically assisted voting and some of those other changes regarding postal voting. The government is finally on this occasion, in some minor ways, actually going to try to encourage people to be part of the electoral system and to actually cast valid votes. But this is at odds with its performance just a few months ago and the changes made that are relevant in this case because they relate to the operation of the electoral system, which is what this act is about amending and, in those circumstances, are of real concern.

Other changes which have gone through and which have a direct impact on the operation of this system relate to issues like greater identity requirements for enrolment. As I mentioned, some of these changes were additional allowances made for identity provision for enrolment for people overseas, but there is no doubt that, with what the government now requires with respect to the general operation of enrolments under our system, it will make it harder for people to enrol and harder for people to be able to cast a valid vote. We can see that already in the context of the requirements for provisional voters to provide identification now on election day—all of this when the government has acknowledged, and ministers have repeatedly acknowledged, that there is not an issue with fraud within our Australian electoral system.

In terms of the changes made earlier this year, the provisions will make it harder to cast a vote, harder to enrol to vote and harder to ensure that that vote is actually counted, while at the same time massively increasing the capacity for donations to be made to political parties. As an interesting aside, after the coalition has been saying that it is really important that we make these changes, that the administrative issues here are very difficult for political parties and that it is only reasonable and fair to do it, we actually came across a letter from the Prime Minister to the Premier of New South Wales from several years ago where he talked about how he saw no reason to change the disclosure levels. On the proposal from the then Premier of New South Wales, who suggested there could be some changes to the disclosure regime, the response from the Prime Minister was, ‘No, there’s no problem.’ It was fine; but, all of a sudden, just a year or so later, the government of which he is the leader has come back around and said: ‘We can make changes and we will make changes. What we’ll do is make it a lot easier for people to make donations, for those donations to be secret and not disclosed publicly. We’ll remove transparency from the system so that people can have more concerns about what is actually going on behind the scenes.’

We talk about open, transparent and accountable government. If we look at what this government has done with respect to the issues in the electoral system, we see an example of how they have behaved in many areas. Frankly, we can draw correlations and lessons with things like AWB. Right across the board, when we look at the changes they have made in a range of areas, there has been a lack of proper administration and a lack of transparency—and certainly a capacity to allow allegations to be made because it cannot be established from the primary material what in fact has occurred. That is exactly what we have seen happen with respect to the operation of the electoral system.

I am pleased today to be able to welcome the changes in this legislation. I think they are a step forward. But they are a small step forward after a massive leap backwards, which occurred earlier on with the changes made by this government to the operation of our electoral system. We will have to wait to see how both these measures and the earlier measures actually work with respect to the next federal election.

I will make a prediction with respect to some of the changes that were made earlier on. There will be, in some respects and in some areas, real problems. There will be many Australians who are denied the capacity to exercise their rights within our democratic system as a result of those changes. There are already questions about how accurate the electoral roll is under the current AEC systems. They have acknowledged that they have serious concerns. These changes, in my view, will make things much harder.

That will create issues. It is designed to create issues, in my view. It has been designed right from the start. It was very clear from the speech of the former Special Minister of State to the Sydney Institute that he saw this issue as being a political response. He argued that it is a political response to an earlier political response by the Labor Party in terms of changes we made some 20 years ago. The bottom line is this: independent experts right across the board have come forth and said the system as it operated was designed to encourage participation, to encourage people to exercise their rights to be part of the political process, and that these changes introduced by this government in fact do the very reverse. In fact, that is what it was all about right from the start.

The government can be congratulated for these particular changes today because they do provide some minor but important improvements to the system and they actually are about improved access and ensuring that people get a better chance to be part of the system and to play their role. But the government ought to get a very big kick for what they did earlier on with respect to this legislation and the alterations to the act. What they did in that process was to make it harder for people to participate, harder to enrol, harder to vote, and they created a circumstance that is already allowing massive amounts of money to be hidden from public scrutiny. That is a blight on our democracy. It is unnecessary. It is unfair and it is unreasonable and, for that, the government should stand condemned. We recommend the passing of this legislation because it is a good step forward, small though it is.